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Seeing green in San Diego

CALIFORNIA SAMPLER

Putting eco-travel to the test, we discover that the city passes with its trolleys but fails in its hotel options.

November 23, 2008|Scott Martelle | Martelle, a freelance writer, is the author of "Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West."

SAN DIEGO — Our mission -- beyond celebrating our 22nd wedding anniversary -- was to spend a weekend in San Diego in as eco-friendly a manner as we could, given two realities. One: Southern California's transportation system was designed by car salesmen. Two: We're really cheap.

Both realities landed the trip in the "nice try" category, and I'm sure there's a polar bear somewhere grousing about us. The experience also revealed a frustrating reality about trying to plan an eco-friendly weekend getaway: It's expensive, the kind of disincentive that suggests "eco-friendly travel" may still be more marketing gimmick than a trend that will do the world some good.

My wife, Margaret, and I live in Irvine, on Amtrak's Surfliner route, which we chose on a recent Friday instead of driving the 85 miles to downtown San Diego. With a AAA discount, the two round-trip tickets cost $75.60. Our car gets about 22 miles per gallon, which would've meant a gas tab of about $30 at the time we took the 190-mile round trip. (It would be even cheaper now.) Advantage: driving.

But then, if we had driven, we would have missed some of the prettiest stretches of beach and ocean on the West Coast, between Dana Point and Oceanside, where the train track crowns a bluff above surfer-specked breakers. Advantage: train.

In planning the trip, we looked into several hotels, hoping to find one that was eco-conscious but didn't have room rates set for a chief executive's budget. Not much luck.

The best we could find was Kimpton's Hotel Solamar, near the Gaslamp Quarter, that touts its use of environmentally friendly cleaning supplies; soy-based inks and recycled paper; in-room recycling separation; and even a parking discount for hybrids.

But with rates beginning at $240 a night, we looked elsewhere and wound up at the Holiday Inn downtown, which edges up against Interstate 5 well north of downtown. The rates began at $144 a night for a 15th-floor room with a great view of the bay and harborside airport.

Unfortunately, the hotel didn't do as well on the environmental checklist. The room had eco-friendly fluorescent lights -- which benefit the hotel's electric bill as much as the environment -- but didn't offer even the usual option of reusing our towels. And the old-style in-room air conditioner had to be a drain on the power grid. (The only window that opened didn't let enough of the ocean breeze in to counter the hotel's stuffiness.)

The selling point was the proximity: four blocks to a stop on the city's trolley system, one of San Diego's many lovely gems, even if it isn't without its flaws. The system, for instance, doesn't connect with the airport, which is close enough to downtown that you swear the landing planes will clip a roof. And it doesn't connect to Balboa Park, one of the city's tourist magnets with its array of museums and the San Diego Zoo, or to SeaWorld, another top destination.

But the trolley gets to enough places to make it well worth the $9 for a two-day pass.

So with our base set up, we decided to take a walk -- eight blocks down to the harbor front, then a long, curling stroll past the Star of India sailing ship, the Midway aircraft carrier and on through Seaport Village, the obligatory cluster of waterside gift shops and theme restaurants.

As we veered back inland near the Manchester Grand Hyatt, we spotted a sign for the Top of the Hyatt lounge, slipped inside, found the elevator (mass transit, good) and zipped to the 40th floor. My wife doesn't like heights. OK, she's paralyzed by them and will drive four days cross-country rather than fly five hours. (How big a carbon footprint is that?)

After a little consoling and a promise of an Amstel Light, we settled into a window seat and, once she stopped shaking, we spent half an hour watching over the harbor and a ribbon of ocean beyond the Point Loma peninsula that helps form the famous bay.

Refreshed, we sliced through the Gaslamp Quarter then on up 5th Avenue to C Street and the trolley, which we rode back to Little Italy, a place we hadn't explored in earlier visits.

We hadn't been missing much -- it's just a few blocks of Italian-themed restaurants and, incongruously enough, a sushi joint and a British pub, the Princess Pub & Grille, which was part bar and part museum to the late Princess Di.

After a pint there we moved on to Zagarella, an Italian restaurant with a back patio and a better-than-expected meal of bruschetta, grilled shrimp over a bed of string French fries topped by marinara sauce.

Saturday was open. We decided to hop the Blue Line and make for the border -- the end of the line at San Ysidro -- just to see what we could see.

Answer: not much. Think gated windows rather than gated communities, with the occasional war ship in dry dock as the trolley rumbled south through National City. We didn't cross into Tijuana so we turned around and took the trolley back north.

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